Bulleit proof

“New Orleans was the only place in the US that spoke French, so that’s where he arrived,” explains Bulleit. “In due course he came up the Mississippi river and settled in the Louisville area, which was becoming America’s whiskey port. He had his own granary and so distilled, and had a tavern at one point. He would make trips back down the river to sell his whiskey. It was an incredibly arduous journey in those days.”

“In 1860 he did not return – even though he had a family of five boys. In the south we consider ourselves gentile, so the ladies would always say he had been murdered. The men would say he had another family in New Orleans and possibly liked them better.

“There was talk of sending sheriffs to find him, but in 1861 the Civil War started and that was a bloodbath. One person missing was almost irrelevant.

“We don’t know what happened to him but we do know what happened to his recipe. It was passed down by word of mouth from Augustus to my great-grandfather to my grandfather to my father Thomas. The distilling jumped from Augustus to me. But other branches of my family were involved in bourbon – it was a very strong life influence. You could smell the grain driers all over our neighbourhood.”

Bulleit’s start-up cost more than he had. “My banker told me not to give up my day job – ‘you owe me far too much money for that’, he would say. My wife Betsy would ask each month: ‘How are we gonna pay back all this money, Tom. I have calculated that you would have to practise law for another 273 years.’”

Bulleit bottled his first bourbon in 1994. In 1997 he was at the table with Seagram. “At one point during the negotiations they asked: ‘What is the concept Tom?’ I had no idea what that meant.”

Maybe not, but Bulleit is a born raconteur. Selling bourbon to a drinker isn’t much different to selling bourbon to a drinks group – you need to reel them in with the story.

“We got together with Seagram, which was a huge boon. They loved the recipe, the name and the fact our family has a long tradition of distilling.”

The group had sold all of its Bourbon brands and was looking for a way back into the category. “Seagram had an extraordinary quality culture. It did a lot of things on gut and feel. We moved all our operations to its Lawrenceburg Kentucky and Lawrenceburg Indiana distilleries.” The names are just a coincidence, says Bulleit. “Although I am configuring a story about an Uncle Lawrence who was wounded and crawled between… I’ll work it out.”

In this industry when a big business comes knocking the small business is the one to adapt. This is also true of Bulleit, but not for the worse. “When we transitioned to the old Seagram operations we were able to fully implement the family recipe, which is two-thirds corn, one-third rye.

“The stills in Lawrenceburg Kentucky are by a large creek and in Indiana they are built on top of a 2 million-year-old glacial aquifer. There’s an inexhaustible supply of limestone water. We chose a great yeast strain and Art Peterson came in as master distiller – with more knowledge about whiskey than anyone I’ve known. He could put whiskey on his palm and tell you what it is, who made it and how old it is.”